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The Great Paradox of the Christian Life

Oh my! Almost forgot to post tonight! But … here it is. Better late than never, right?

In recent weeks, Justin Taylor has republished 15 questions and answers from David Powlison’s essay, “I Am Motivated When I Feel Desire,” which is included in his book, Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture. This post will chronicle my thoughts on and extensive quotes from the fifteenth and final question, Can you change what you want?

“Can you change what you want? Yes. Does the answer to this question surprise you?” Powlison asks while answering question 15. His reasoning is as follows:

The deepest longings of the human heart can and must be changed if mankind is to become all that God designed us to be. Our deviant longings are illegitimate masters; even where the object of desire is a good thing, the status of the desire usurps God. Our cravings should be recognized in order that we may more richly know God as the Savior, Lover, and Converter of the human soul. God would have us long for him more than we long for his gifts. To make us truly human, God must change what we want; we must learn to want the things Jesus wanted. It is no surprise that the psychologists can’t find any biblical proof texts for their view of human motivation. The Bible teaches a different view.

The Christian life is a great paradox. Those who die to self, find self. Those who die to their cravings will receive many times as much in this age, and, in the age to come, eternal life (Luke 18:29). They will find new passions worth living for and dying for. If I crave happiness, I will receive misery. If I crave to be loved, I will receive rejection. If I crave significance, I will receive futility. If I crave control, I will receive chaos. If I crave reputation, I will receive humiliation. But if I long for God and his wisdom and mercy, I will receive God and wisdom and mercy. Along the way, sooner or later, I will also receive happiness, love, meaning, order, and glory.

Powlison goes on to get to the very heart of the matter, a Christian’s transformation:

Every vital Christian testifies that the instinctive passions and desires of the flesh can be replaced with the new priorities of the Spirit. This reorientation is not instant and complete, but it is genuine and progressive. Two of the greatest books of practical Christian theology—Augustine’s Confessions and Jonathan Edwards’s Treatise Concerning Religious Affectionsmeditate on this transformation. And one assumes that Francis of Assisi meant his prayer: “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love.” The craving to learn how to love and understand replaces the craving for love and understanding.

Those who hunger and thirst for such righteousness will be satisfied. We have Jesus’ word. We have no promise, however, that God will satisfy the instinctive cravings of the soul. The Bible teaches us to pray, to learn to ask for what we really need. Can we pray the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer and really mean it? Yes. Can we long for God’s glory, for his will to be obeyed, for daily material provision for all God’s people, for sins to be forgiven, for aid in warfare with evil? Yes.

A wise Puritan pastor, Thomas Chalmers, once wrote of the expulsive power of a new affection. New ruling desires expel lesser masters from the throne.

“The Christian life is a great paradox.” There is a radical transformation from unsaved blasphemer to saved worshipper. Paul writes of his own transformation in 1 Timothy 1:12-17, in which he also writes of the hope that his transformation should give us and also of how the glory is all God’s. I preached on this passage July 24, and you can listen to my sermon on that passage here.

Why is the Christian life such a paradox? We Christians are redeemed spiritually, but we still await the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23). We Christians are to die to self if we are to truly live. As we seek to share this one message of true hope—that Jesus Christ is the only Way to be saved, and the only Life worth living—we must “make this transformation central,” as David Powlison concludes his answer to question 15:

Idolatrous cravings hijack the human heart. Both the Christian life and Christian ministry are by definition about the business of accomplishing a transformation in what people want. Such transformations lie at the center of the Holy Spirit’s purposes in working his Word into our lives. The lusts of the flesh lead somewhere bad: dead works. The lusts of the flesh have a specific solution: the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which replaces them. “He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf” (2 Cor. 5:15). The desires of the Lord lead to somewhere good: good works. One key ingredient in reclaiming the cure of souls is to make this transformation central.

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